John W. Pinkerton


Poetry was never confusing to me as a youth: regular line lengths, with regular rhythms, and regular rhymes.  Then I discovered free verse: from this point on, the world of poetry made far less sense.   The Japanese haiku made more sense than free verse. At least the haiku required 5, 7, 5 moras per line. Don’t worry about what a mora is.  In Western culture we think of these as syllables; they’re not, but close enough.

first breath of winter
only the berries remain
remembering red

I think the problem I had was that I wasn’t that crazy about poetry to begin with, but I did like the discipline of old-fashioned poetry.  Shakespeare must be admired, if for no other reason, for the self-discipline he exhibited by writing entire plays in iambic pentameter.

When I was teaching English, I taught poetic meter and could scan with the best. There is something wonderfully natural about a line of iambic pentameter. Most of our English pronouncements are naturally in this meter.

With free verse came a looser definition of poetry: “the best words in the best order.”  Cute, but I’m not quite sure how this separates it from prose.   Free verse has always seemed to me to be prose masquerading as poetry: that may be just me.

I like some of Carl Sandburg’s free verse, particularly “The Sins of Kalamazoo”: the following is a small sample.

Oh yes, there is a town named Kalamazoo,

A spot on the map where the trains hesitate.

I saw the sign of a five and ten cent store there

And the Standard Oil Company and the  

      International Harvester

And a graveyard and a ball grounds

And a short order counter where a man can get a

    stack of wheats

And a pool hall where a rounder leered confidential

     like and said:

"Lookin’ for a quiet game?”

Try the following on for size:

“Oh yes, there is a town named Kalamazoo, a spot on the map where the trains hesitate. I saw the sign of a five and ten cent store there and the Standard Oil Company and the International Harvester  and a graveyard and a ball grounds and a short order counter where a man can get a stack of wheats and a pool hall where a rounder leered confidential like and said: ‘Lookin’ for a quiet game?’”

Humm, same words in the same order with the same punctuation without the pretension of being “poetry.”   Gee, “the best words in the best order” seems to apply to the prose version just as well as the poetic version.  Go figure.

Or let’s turn it around and write the opening paragraph of Hemingway’s prose short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” as free verse.

It was late and every one had left the cafe

Except an old man who sat in the shadow

The leaves of the tree made

Against the electric light.

In the day time the street was dusty;

But at night the dew settled the dust

And the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf

And now at night it was quiet and he felt the        


The two waiters inside the cafe

Knew that the old man was a little drunk,

And while he was a good client

They knew that if he became too drunk

He would leave without paying,

So they kept watch on him.

I think that makes my point.

I guess the type of poetry I dislike the most is lyric poetry: poetry that expresses the thoughts and feelings of the poet.  It always seemed to me that poetry really wasn’t the best way of expressing one’s feelings if one really meant it.  Sonnets, which consist of 14 lines which usually has one or more conventional rhyme schemes, has always seemed to me to be an awkward way of saying “I love you” or “Thank you” or “I’m sorry.”  I recall one evening at a banquet the guest speaker was a lyric poet.  He shared some of his poems with those assembled.  They were precious little gems involving little girls and catfish and puppies. I wanted to slap him.  I agree with Hank Hill as he advised Luanne that it’s all right to swallow her emotions.

On the other hand, there are the epic poems: monstrous long affairs often written in rhyming couplets.  It’s not that I don’t like these epic stories, it’s just that a more natural form like, I don’t know, say prose would be a better form for their telling.

It’s really not that I dislike poetry:  it’s just that for the most part I can’t see the point in expressing most things in this form.  Prose will do the job quiet nicely, but I suspect it’s hard to convince anyone that a paragraph of prose is a complete work.

Now, I do like some poetry.

I like James Weldon Johnson’s “The Creation” which is a black sermon in verse.  The following is the opening stanza:

And God stepped out on space,

And he looked around and said:

I'm lonely---

I'll make me a world.

Emily Dickinson’s poem “I’m Nobody: Who are you?,” although admittedly a little old-fashioned, appeals to me.

I'm Nobody! Who are you?

Are you nobody, too?

Then there's a pair of us - don't tell!

They'd banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!

How public, like a frog

To tell your name the livelong day

To an admiring Bog!

I also find appealing Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” which opens with the following:

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Being that I like cats, I like poems about cats. T. S. Eliot’s “Macavity: The Mystery Cat” is a personal favorite. The opening stanza is the following:

Macavity's a Mystery Cat: he's called the Hidden Paw For he's the master criminal who can defy the Law.

He's the bafflement of Scotland Yard, the Flying

     Squad's despair:

For when they reach the scene of crime - Macavity's not there!

Everyone should try to write a poem occasionally: not for any particular purpose, just something to do. I suggest limericks: a five-line poem in anapestic or amphibrachic meter with a strict rhyme scheme (aabba), which intends to be witty or humorous, and is sometimes obscene with humorous intent. What more could you ask for?

A gentle old lady I knew

Was dozing one day in her pew;

When the preacher yelled "Sin!"

She said, "Count me in!

As soon as the service is through!"

Personally I’ve only written one poem. It’s so short that giving it a title would be like putting a ten gallon hat on a mouse. It was really just written for me and now, I guess, for you:

I am Mankind come from the sea.

                                I am Man.

                                I am man.

                                I am me.



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